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Shimmering Beauty

From Will O'Brien.

I confess: When Joe Johnson first came into the shelter, I was a little on edge.

True, that was years ago now, and I was admittedly younger, a bit more raw and still harboring some of the inevitable naiveté of youthful idealism. But even the other staff and volunteers acknowledged he was an intimidating figure.

It was the throes of winter, so the massive coat, scarves, thick gloves, and large knit hat were hardly out of place – except that they were never shed, even as winter yielded to spring and spring to summer. As thick as his outerwear was, it didn’t account for all of the great mass it covered. Joe Johnson was a large man, tall, bulky, imposing. He moved with a slow, brooding step. He commanded the space around him, and most folks gave him a wide berth.

His face was a mystery, under the thick hat and scarf, but mostly because of the dark glasses he never took off. His eyes ever hidden, he seemed mostly expressionless – which might, in one moment, be taken as an eternal scowl, in another moment as a placidity bred of strength, or some inner Zen calm.

Not that any discourse would shed light on his mood or being. Joe was as quiet as anyone who ever came into one of our shelters or residences. Hardly a word passed his lips – which may have been the capstone of his mysterious and intimidating presence. What was he thinking? What might he do if..?

It unsettled me how much Joe evoked my inner bogey of the “big, scary, black man.” Our mental health support staff would have no problem enveloping Joe in its lexicon of psychiatric disorders, and, while certainly accurate, that only evoked another bogey: “big scary, crazy man.”

While efforts at conversation or interaction did little to pierce his dense exterior, over time we learned that Joe was in fact gentle; if not exactly friendly, then certainly not aggressive and fairly cooperative with life in the shelter.

Joe not only stayed with us that winter, he also remained over the next couple of years, as the makeshift emergency shelter was renovated and transformed into a transitional supportive residence for chronically homeless persons with long-term mental illness. Joe transitioned without incident into his own room and the more supportive and regimented environment.

His impenetrability, however, defied most mental health interventions. This meant that - unlike the trajectory of many of our residents, who would stabilize on medication, begin a case management plan, and start serious rehabilitation in their lives - Joe would likely always be... Joe. He mostly kept to himself, flowed with the rhythms of the residence at his own pace. I suspect that newcomers or visitors probably had the same initial response that we did: Who is that guy? Is he threatening? Is it safe around him..?

We had come to know something of Joe in those first couple of years – until another layer of mystery emerged. While he usually eschewed any of the activities in the residence, he surprised us when he showed an interest in an arts program. Then he further surprised us – rather, astonished us – with what emerged when his thickly gloved hands took pen, marker, paint, glitter, or other tool to canvass. Vast tableaus, rich and startling in color, thickly textured, wild in design, blending abstraction with hints of naturalism, strangely patterned but not an anarchistic chaos – rather a clear intention at work, a focused and driving creative invention. His titles were fascinating: “The Chariot of Phoebus Sheds Light on the Lonely World.”

“The Arc of Infinity’s Rainbow.”

"The Golden Vessel Holds All Our Tears.”

Who is this guy? What’s going on behind that silent façade?

By this time, I worked at a different residence in our program, but I would on occasion come to this particular mental health residence to play music at the rickety old piano and lead a rather strained sing-along with some of the residents. Joe, of course, would not participate. But one day, after our music session ended, I noticed him at the other end of the room at the art table, hulking over a large canvass. I wandered over, and tried - with minimal expectations - to engage him in conversation.

After a few comments on the emerging artwork, I inquired, “So, Joe, do you like music?”

“Yeah,” he said, in a typical outburst of oratory, remaining hunched over, focused on his painting.

“Ah, what kind of music do you like to listen to?”

Still hunched over, still intent on his aesthetic endeavor, he said in monotone: “Mingus.”

In that moment, the universe shifted for me. Something in my entire perception of reality cracked, some ineffable light burst through.

Charles Mingus. The iconoclastic musical genius, who fused streams of jazz, blues, and classical, pushing them beyond bebop, into avant-garde and free form and beyond, forging ferocious new sounds, rhythms, and tempos, sounds never before heard, musical terrains never before explored. Mingus, whose music is complex, demanding, visionary, sophisticated, appealing mostly to those of rarified tastes.

This big scary crazy man, a refugee from the streets, a castaway on the margins of our economy and society – a Mingus devotee.

It’s been several years since that moment, and Joe Johnson is still with us. Neither his demeanor nor his couture has changed much. He is often still to be seen brooding over the art table, silently creating, translating his mysterious inner world into shimmering colors, bold lines, rich textures. Many of his paintings have sold, several have been in galleries.

In a sense, he still intimidates me, but not in the same way he did when he first came into our shelter many years back. When I see him, I am reminded that my own vision constantly needs to be stretched – if it isn’t, I might miss a shimmering beauty at the heart of the human experience.


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